Student Spotlight: Johnny Mathews at Urban Bush Women
This post is part of a series of posts by students who are part of our 21st Century Student Internship program. As part of the paid internship program, students spend several weeks with a company that’s on the UMS season.
U-M student Johnny Mathews was paired with Urban Bush Women in Summer 2017. Urban Bush Women perform in Ann Arbor on January 12, 2018.
Photos: Group photo of all Urban Bush Women’s Student Leadership Institute (SLI) participants at the end of the Culminating Performance
This summer, thanks to UMS’s 21st Century Artist Internship program, I was able to spend two months in New York City and had experiences that surely changed my life in known and unknown ways. I was placed within, 33-year-old dance company, Urban Bush Women (UBW), a Brooklyn-based dance company dedicated to sharing stories of the African diaspora and committed to enacting social change through dance and workshops. Most of my time with the company was focused on preparing for UBW’s Summer Leadership Institute (SLI). I assisted in administrative work to help the administrative staff as they readied all that goes into having a long workshop for over one hundred participants and staff.
This ten-day intensive program was entitled: You, Me, We – Understanding Internalized Racial Oppression and How It Manifests in Our Artistic Community. SLI consisted of dance classes that was accessible for every body–type, size, ability– to do and be involved in. These dance classes were used as ways to share different African-American dance traditions, such as the ring-shout, the Second Line, and J-Setting. Dance was just a small portion of the day, however. The first seven days of the program were focused on discussions about racism and how it manifests in our community, as well as how and what we can do as artists to help combat racism.
This first meant that we had to truly understand the systems and operations that have been in place in our country that have systematically oppressed marginalized communities. These workshops were led by an organization that works to undermine racism in communities around the country: The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB). I learned so much from these workshops, and my frame of reference was completely shifted with respect to how I think and talk about racism in America. I still find myself processing a lot of the information that was presented and discussed to this day.
Photos: On left, Vincent Thomas passionately leading class at SLI. On right, volunteers who helped with Black Velvet Fundraising Performance Art Event at the 14th St Y.
For the last few days of the program, the focus shifted to actually creating a culminating performance that would be presented to an audience. The way this was created was really special and something that I had never been a part of before. Instead of having one leader or creator heading the creative process, the show was created very democratically. It started with the entire community coming together and sharing what they bring to the table; whether it be music, singing, theatre, poetry, sound and light design, dance, etc. Then the performance was created by the people and allowed for everyone to showcase their best talents and abilities. Seeing the entire community come together to build upon each other’s talents was inspiring and made me think about how this can be replicated in all aspects of art making.
Though this culminating performance seemed to be the culmination of my weeks of work, there was one more part of my internship: I was able to accompany the dance company on a four-day tour to Akron, Ohio. This was a truly immersive, educational experience. I was able to follow the co-artistic directors, the company members, the company manager, and the technical director as they traversed all that comes with a quick, one-stop tour. This tour was presented by the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival and was composed of two performances, a master class, and a post-show talk back. Something really interesting to see was how adaptable everyone had to be on this tour.
UBW was performing excerpts from Walking with Trane and portions of their 30th Anniversary Collage, two works that the company was not currently working on. Therefore, the dancers had only one or two rehearsals together in Akron to put these works back together. Not only were they putting it together, but they were rearranging the works while we were there, with everyone adapting to the changes perfectly. I was allowed an insider’s look into how a world-class dance company interacts with a presenter, a new community, and each other.
Photos: On left, John Mathews pictured with the New York skyline from the beaches in DUMBO, Brooklyn. On right, participating in Sidra Bell’s Summer Module 2017.
I grew so much as a person by being an intern with UBW. Not only from all the work I put in for the company and the insights I gained, but also because I was able to live in New York City for two months and was afforded opportunities that I would never have been able to have otherwise. While I was in the city, I attended Sidra Bell’s Summer Module, a week-long dance intensive that connected me with a community of New York based dancers; I saw so many different kinds of performances, such as Dearest Home by Abraham in Motion, Onegin by American Ballet Theatre, Hamilton, and many more; I assisted Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins in a fundraising event for their world tour of Black Velvet; and I was simply able to feel settled in while living in New York City. I had a summer immersed in all facets of the art-making process and am so grateful to UMS for the opportunity.
See Urban Bush Women on January 12, 2018.